James Webb (historian)

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James Charles Napier Webb (13 January 1946 – 9 May 1980) was a Scottish historian and biographer. He was born in Edinburgh, and was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He is remembered primarily for his books The Harmonious Circle, The Occult Underground (originally titled Flight from Reason), and The Occult Establishment.

In 1980 his important biography of G. I. Gurdjieff, titled The Harmonious Circle, was published. He spent 8 years researching the book, making contacts with the Gurdjieff community worldwide. The New York Review of Books described Webb's research and knowledge of the subject as "extremely comprehensive",[1] and Mistlberger described the book as "scholarly and occasionally gossipy" with Webb being "unquestionably a sincere researcher" who became "deeply involved in the matter of his subject" while remaining "fundamentally an outsider, an investigative journalist".[2] Tamdgidi wrote that, amongst all the biographers of Gurdjieff, "only Webb claimed to have been independent and outside the circle of Gurdjieff's followers", and in 2004, in Inventors of Gurdjieff, Paul Beekman Taylor described The Harmonious Circle as "the first systematic biographical account by a writer who hadn't known Gurdjieff personally"[3] Webb established that Gurdjieff's writings revealed substantial evidence of familiarity with the languages and cultures of central Asia, but Webb regarded Gurdjieff more as a self-taught innovator than a member of an esoteric Asiatic group, and, although seeing some of its forms having derived from Asia, saw the content of his teachings deriving from western occult traditions.[4]

Webb's theories of Gurdjieff's identity as a Russian foreign agent in Central Asia,[5] and theories on where he actually travelled before 1917, are considered controversial points in The Harmonious Circle.

Webb's work challenges theories of secularism, theories of decline in organised religion and spirituality.[citation needed] Webb argued that the 19th and 20th centuries had also been marked by a revolt against the Enlightenment, and that the rise of irrationalism was much more marked than the rise of rationalism, especially before, during and after the First World War and the Second World War. Webb traced the influence of occult and mystical groups and writers on literature, philosophy and politics.

Webb was generally ignored in his lifetime, but with the increasing rise of New Age spirituality in later years, his work now seems increasingly prescient. After increasing mental health difficulties, Webb committed suicide in 1980.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has lauded him as a serious researcher of occultism: "By focusing on functional significance of occultism in political irrationalism, Webb rescued the study of Nazi occultism for the history of ideas."[6]

His major works The Occult Underground and The Occult Establishment were translated into German and published in 2009 and 2008 respectively.

Trinity College established the "James Webb Prize for the History of Ideas" in his memory.[7][8]

Selected works[edit]

  • Flight from Reason (1971) MacDonald & Co., London ISBN 0-356-03634-0
  • The Occult Establishment: The Dawn of the New Age and The Occult Establishment (1976) Open Court Publishing. ISBN 0-87548-434-4
  • The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers (1980) Putnam Publishing. ISBN 0-399-11465-3
  • Das Zeitalter des Irrationalen: Politik, Kultur und Okkultismus im 20. Jahrhundert – German translation of The Occult Establishment (2008) Marix Verlag. ISBN 978-3865391520

Further reading[edit]

John Robert Colombo, Colin Wilson, Joyce Collin-Smith: The Occult Webb: An Appreciation of the life and Work of James Webb, (1999) Colombo & Company. ISBN 1-896308-56-2


  1. ^ Rosemary Dinnage, "The Great Mystifier", The New York Review of Books, 23 October 1980. [1]
  2. ^ P. T. Mistlberger, "The Three Dangerous Magi: Osho, Gurdjieff, Crowley", 2010, pages 327 & 397.
  3. ^ Mohammad H. Tamdgidi, "Gurdjieff and Hypnosis: A Hermeneutic Study", Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Pages 15 & 17.
  4. ^ K. Paul Johnson, "Initiates of Theosophical Masters", State University of New York Press, 1995, p140.
  5. ^ Gary Lachman, "Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen", 2008, Quest Books, pp124-125. ISBN 978-0835608572
  6. ^ Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany 1890–1935, originally published in 1985 by the Aquarian Press in Wellingborough, England
  7. ^ Gary Lachman, "The Damned: the strange death of James Webb" Archived 22 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Trinity College, History Subject Notes Archived 7 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]